“Teaching.” The term was apparently already in use before the time of Confucius, who used it in the context of human activity or mores, and Lao-tzu, who may have been the first to give the word a purely mystical connotation. In the sense that the Tao is also the primordial Source of the universe, it resembles the Hindu Brahman, the impersonal Absolute. And like Brahman, the Tao is knowable only in the depths of the heart in silent meditations not unlike the trances of the rishis and Upanishadic seers.
Composed of 81 very brief chapters, the Tao Te Ching can easily be read in one sitting. Although much of it sounds vague and theoretical, it also conveys specific practical advice on the ruling of nations:
“When a country is govered with tolerance,
The people are genuine and honest.
When a country is governed with repression,
The people are more deceitful and dishonest.” (60)
Despite the minimalist feel of these instructions, history does record the results of the reign of one Taoist ruler who actively followed Lao-tzu’s formulas for governing. Among other accomplishments, Emperor Han Wen Ti (179-157) did away with punishment by mutilation and with laws requiring the execution of an entire family because one member had committed a capital crime. Instead of warring on the northern barbarians, he approached them with presents and an exchange of trade. And he did all this while lowering taxes and cutting waste and corruption in the royal court. Chinese historians praised him because “the Empress’s skirt did not touch the ground” — cut short as an austerity measure.
For all that, the basic thrust of the Tao Te Ching is away from motivated activity, similar to the goal of nonattachment to the fruits of one’s actions espoused by the Bhagavad-Gita. Lao-tzu’s response to the chaos of his times can also be seen as an alternative to that developed by Confucius and his followers: if civilization is so unpredictably violent, venal, and cruel, why have anything to do with it at all? Much of the Tao Te Ching objects to the foolishness of purposeful action in a way that is coherent with Zen:
“The more prohibitions you have, the less virtuous people will be.”
Chuang-tzu, who lived c. 389-286 BCE and grew up in the same part of China as Lao-tzu knowing the Tao Te Ching, expanded upon its short, pithy maxims in the Chuang-tzu (sometimes called The Divine Classic of Nan-hua). Although it is 33 chapters long, only the first seven, or Inner Chapters, are considered to be indisputably the work of the master, the rest presumably coming from his disciples and later commentators. Chuang’s most famous story concerns his dream of being a butterfly. The dream felt so real, he said, that when he awoke, he couldn’t be sure whether he was Chuang-tzu who had dreamed that he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming that he was Chuang-tzu. The authors of the Upanishads could hardly have stated the illusoriness of the phenomenal world any more deftly.